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A Feast of History and Affection

ISSUE:  Spring 1976
The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784. Edited by Lyman H. Butterfield and others. Harvard. $15.00

EVERY one of the so-called Founding Fathers possessed one quality which sustained them when there were dark and dreary days after April 19,1775—confidence. John Adams had both confidence and his wife-lover, Abigail—a felicitous combination indeed. John Adams, in whom the art of being pessimistic had been well-developed in his youth, shook his gloom when he contemplated the future of America. Add to Adams’s confidence his vanity and his affection for Abigail and we still have only half a book—but add Abigail with her devotion, her cleverness, and her confidence and we have a delightful view of the Founding Parents coming at an opportune time. Not the Bicentennial, for that epithet grew stale several years ago and is useful now only in selling bunting and ashtrays. But a book about the relationship between the Adamses, husband and wife, during the excitement of 1762—1784 is a literary event of the first importance and most welcome during the 1976 political campaigning. We knew about John and a few knew about Abigail, but the word from the incorruptible Adamses is available here in convenient form and offers a portrait as detailed and delightful as a matched pair of portraits from Copley’s brushes.

Lyman Butterfield and his helpers Marc Friedlaender and Mary-Jo Kline have chosen mainly from the letters exchanged between John and Abigail from their courtship days through the separation joyfully ended on August 7, 1784. Between times we see how Adams worried himself sick over the small pox, over the possibilities that he may miss if he does not go to the Continental Congress, and the opportunities he will lose if he does. But the hope of glory is a magnet to Adams, and his Abigail encouraged him while she worried about inflation, the small pox, and the threats of British invasion. “The Congress had been pleased to give me more Business than I am qualified for,” Adams confided, “and more than I fear, I can go through, with safety to my Health.” Survive he did, however, and Adams was spared to be a witness to total separation from England. “The Second Day of July 1776,” Adams crowed, “will be the most memorable Epoch, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

What had carried Adams away was the vote in Congress on Independence. No matter that history took the Fourth of July as more proper, what Adams perceived was that the ensuing war would bring calamities “and Distresses yet more dreadful. If this is to be the Case, it will have this good Effect, at least: it will inspire Us with many Virtues, which We have not, and correct many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonour, and destroy Us. The Furnace of Affliction produces Refinement, in States as well as Individuals.” Thus cleansed, America would rise as an example to all mankind. “Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory,” he added. “I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not,” Adams never did rue the events of July 2—4, 1776, and he was comfortably sure that neither had God.

Abigail was even more certain that all the sacrifices (her long separations from John being chief among them) were justified. When the news of peace came from Paris, where her beloved Yankee fretted and fumed over a thousand cares, his loyal wife responded with patriotic outburst. The glorious victory and peace had not been “fabricated in the Loom of France, nor are the materials english, but they are the product of our own American Soil, raised and nurtured, not by the gentle showers of Heaven, but by the hard Labour and indefatigable industery and firmness of her Sons, and water’d by the Blood of many of them. May its duration . . .like the Mantel of the prophet descend with blessings to Generations yet to come,” In peacetime things began to look better, but then Abigail had a plaintive reminder that has a timeless ring. “We want a Soloman in wisdom, to guide and conduct this great people: at this critical era. . . . In adversity, we have conducted [ourselves] with prudence and magninimity. Heaven forbid, that we should grow giddy with prosperity, or the height to which we have soared, render a fall conspicuously fatal.”

The editors bridge all the gaps in this feast of history and affection with discriminating deftness. Sometimes we are told not quite enough, but that is better than the reverse temptation to tell all, or more than all. Surely it is better to add commentaries sparingly, leaving the letters and diary entries to stand on their own. If a few identifications of historical allusions are missed by the reader, he still will have gained from the even flow and preserved continuity.

Who could improve or add a footnote to the final entry, written after a long separation between these blue-blooded lovers? Abigail arrives in London and leaves her apartment briefly, then returns and sees a hat, a trunk, ‘a sword, and a cane. John’s hat, trunk, cane, and sword!

“”Where is he?” “In the room above” Up I flew, and to his chamber, where he was lying down, he raised himself upon my knocking softly at the door, and received me with all the tenderness of an affectionate parent after so long an absence. Sure I am, I never felt more agitation of spirits in my life; it will not do to describe it.”


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